Wednesday, November 22, 2017

the Runes (part 2)

This commentary, in several parts, was sparked by a recent request to create a set of rune marked tiles as a custom order. 
The first time I wrote a commentary on the topic of 'Mystic Runes' was back at the very start of this blog (December 12, 2006). 

NOTE: My intention with this series is to place the topic of Runes and Rune Lore into a purely archaeological context.

the Norse Runes

    In the main the Norse culture can be thought to be an oral one, with tales such as those known from the Sagas handed down in smoky halls for generations before they were ever written down. Archaeological evidence, as seen in the range and distribution of written fragments, suggests the Norse were a literate people as well.  The style of writing used by the Scandinavian peoples is called RUNIC, and is another distinctive feature of their shared culture.  The set of these letters is also referred to as the 'futhark', a name taken from the first six characters (just as is our 'alpha-betta').
    In their original form, the runes consist of a series of vertical strokes and diagonal lines. The form of the letters derives from the fact that they were originally designed to be carved into wood. For this reason there are no hard to carve curves or horizontal lines that would run with the grain. There is no clear evidence for exactly when and where the runes were first developed, but the forms show the influences of early Greek and Roman scripts. Certainly there is evidence that early versions of the the system were in use by the Germanic tribes before the birth of Christ. As with other sets of symbols which would become used for writing, these ‘proto runes’ each had a specific symbolic meaning. The given name for each symbol came to represent its sound in writing. (For example, the first rune was called ‘faihu’ to the Goths, ‘fe’’ to the Norse and originally symbolized ‘cattle’ and by extension ‘wealth’.)

     By the beginning of the Viking Age, this symbolic use has disappeared, the letters are just sounds. The Norse had developed their own distinctive system,  although this continues to change and evolve through the centuries. There are two primary versions of these Viking Age runes; the Danish or Common runes, and the Swedo-Norwegian or short twig runes. Each consists of only sixteen characters. The most widely used ‘Common’ runes are shown below:

    To save space, words are separated not by a gap, but most commonly by a dot, and there is no upper case form. To mark the division between sentences, usually a double dot is used (:).  With the reduced set of letters, spelling becomes dependent on the whim of the carver. Typically, d becomes t, g becomes k, p becomes b, and missing vowels are substituted for as best as possible. (For example the name Gormr is seen as 'kurmR’ and Svein as 'suin'.) In keeping with the limited size of the original writing material, the text of the messages are usually short and to the point. Memorial stones were commonly painted, with the runes often highlighted in red. Individual words were sometimes painted differing colour s, to make reading easier. Often the text of a stone will be found cut into  its edge, or in a serpent shaped band running around the central design.
    The selection of artifacts that remain today owe more to the random forces of preservation than any true reflection of period usages. There have been a few inscriptions found carved on sticks, far more are seen on memorial stones. Even still, the content of runic inscriptions gives a clue to the  spread of literacy amongst the Norse. Runic messages can be found almost everywhere the Norse traveled, from Greenland to Constantinople. Samples include such things as owner's or maker's names and marks. The iron pail handle on a bucket from Oseberg says 'asikrir' - "Sigrid owns".  Casual use of runes can be seen in what is basically graffiti, such as the name 'Halfdan' scratched on the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Literacy among women is suggested by such finds a s birch bark note from Novogrod ("Come home your dinner is ready."). There are a number of finds that indicate that runes were used by the middle class in the form of tally sticks and similar business records. As has been mentioned, the greatest source of runic inscriptions that have survived are in the form of memorial stones. These range from simple markers carved for family members to elaborate monuments to great kings and heroes. The text may be short and direct, or consist of elaborate poetic verse. Carved stones also served to mark ownership of property or to commemorate deeds done.
    Although much as been made recently, especially in 'new age' culture, of the use of the runes as a magical tool, the actual evidence is sketchy at best. Despite the statements of those who consider the Victorian mystical revival "ancient knowledge", there is not a single piece of archaeological evidence for 'casting the runes'.  There are no surviving ‘rune tiles’ (of any type of mat erial) indicating that a hand full of markers was scattered and interpreted as a means of divination.  There is some evidence, in the form of artifacts, for the use of prayers and petitions to the gods written in runic type, but this is not proof that the runes themselves were considered magical. This connection has been made because in Norse mythology, the god O∂in derives his knowledge of the runes through the self sacrifice of hanging on the world tree for nine days. (see the section on Norse religion). Simple petitions for divine assistance have been found partially burnt, it is thus assumed that these simple prayers were placed in the fire to loft them to Asgard.

This article originally prepared for ’the Norse Encampment - Training Manual': 1997 - text © Darrell Markewitz

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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